I have wanted to write about the issue of "women in tech" for a long time, and now donglegate has elevated the matter to a level I can no longer ignore. It's like a train wreck from which you can't look away, but the underlying tension speaks to a broader conflict in the tech community. While I find Amanda Blum's excellent post on the matter pretty authoritative, I don't want to focus on Adria Richards' behavior, but instead talk about the background issue of sexism and gender parity in the technology community that informed her behavior.
So, first off: are women and minorities underprivileged in the technology sector? Of course; they are underprivileged in almost every sector of society. Biases, hostile environments, outdated socially constructed roles, bigotry and outright discrimination are pervasive in our community, as they are in most communities. And it doesn't just suck for our community because it's manifestly unjust, but also because it hurts us and our work.
We technologists can write all the code, build all the gadgets, run all the software we want--but if people can't use it, if it doesn't actually solve their problems, if it doesn't speak to their diverse experiences, then it's useless. As women become an ever larger user base, we require their perspective as first-class citizens in the creation of software, hardware, and other high tech products that have become so important. We need to listen to them, sure, but they should also be part of our community as creators themselves, possessing the same skills and ability to pursue their vision in concert with, or independent of, male technologists.
I often hear defenders of "Right to Work" (RTW) laws say that unions are collusive and extortive in a way that is simply unfair to employers. Neither workers nor management should be forced to negotiate through unions, and RTW laws simply level the playing field by ensuring that employees can always negotiate directly with management. The point of labor unions, to the mind of RTW supporters, is to exploit the Wagner Act that forces all parties to negotiate in good faith, and to thereby move wages and benefits up in a way a free market in labor would never allow. The aforementioned article on RTW even compares unions with Mafia protection rackets in this regard.
To describe this line of reasoning as selective would be a gross understatement. After all, let's assume that labor unions are as evil as the RTW lobby says they are. Even granting that for the sake of argument, labor is not the only interest engaging in collective bargaining. What about the individuals involved in the employing corporation? Aren't these businesses effectively "capital unions" exploiting incorporation laws to achieve a better bargaining position relative to labor? Isn't the reason why investors pool their resources and form businesses to get better deals in the market through economies of scale? Isn't that why they try to get investors rather than simply borrowing all the money for their start-up costs--to spread the risk and the reward?
So unions of labor are only one side of this story; to emphasize collusion on the workers' side is to leave another form of collusion totally unaddressed. Corporations are capital unions, organizations whose members work together to negotiate wages and benefits (and other costs, of course) downwards to get the best return for themselves. Why is one form of collusion wrong and the other not?
I'm a big fan of Glenn Greenwald; just about every position he takes is anti-authoritarian, liberal in the best sense, and based on rule of law (which, in this age, is as close to fairness as one can expect). However, he wrote an article on the Chick-fil-a controversy that bugs me. On the narrow question of whether governments should be able to punish corporations for political advocacy, I agree with him that such punishment is unconstitutional. I take issue with his reasoning, though.
Greenwald invites us to consider a series of bills that enlist government in punishing corporations for views they express, money they donate to causes, etc. Some examples:
- Congress enacts a law that states: No business incorporated in America, whether for-profit or non-profit, shall be permitted to donate any of its money to groups espousing liberal ideas. Any business found to be in violation of this prohibition shall be guilty of a Class A felony. Corporate donations to groups espousing conservative causes shall still be permissible and legal.
- A city enacts an ordinance that states: Any business found to have donated money to any group that advocates same-sex marriage or abortion rights (including Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood) shall be barred from doing business within the city limits. Businesses shall still be permitted to donate money to groups which advocate against same-sex marriage or against abortion rights.
I agree with him that the above laws are unconstitutional. Government is prohibited from discriminating or giving unequal protection to the free speech rights of corporations as currently settled law stands (that was indeed one of the caveats he made). Indeed, Greenwald took pains to point out that even in the Citizens United case, not one Supreme Court justice questioned the legitimacy of corporate personhood at all (I addressed Greenwald's commentary on this matter in more detail here). I also agree with him that The Nation's Lee Fang takes an unprincipled, politically expedient position against corporate personhood -- one cannot confine one's critiques of the doctrine to only those cases where it acts against one's sense of justice. Nobody wants to be allied with a hack like Fang less than I.
Christopher Ketchum on corporate personhood:
...so, for example, I can't take a corporation out in the backyard and bury it alive. I can't smack a corporation flat across the face and break its nose. I can't take a corporation's head and split it with an axe, nor can I chop off all its fingers, nor stab out its eyes with a rusty screwdriver, nor burn off its flesh with a blowtorch, nor flay it with an electric sander, nor stomp its kneecaps with a sledgehammer, nor cut its head off and parade it around the room on a broomstick, nor use its entrails as a rappel rope, nor smash its testicles with a spiked bat, nor do any of the things that really should be done to corporations these days - if they were people - but which one would never do to a human being. If only corporate persons would finally show their fleshy faces.
Vicious? Yes. But nothing that Blackwater corporate person wouldn't do to you for the right price.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court struck down several key restrictions on corporate campaign contributions. While many lament the expected influx of yet more corporate cash into an already compliant political system, does anybody really think McCain-Feingold had accomplished much of an improvement? These regulations only affect those who cannot afford the lawyers, accountants, and other professionals who spend their careers finding ways to circumvent the spirit of the laws.
There are two key elements to the court's conclusion: the constitutional prohibition of free speech restrictions and the status of the corporation as a person. Libertarians should not complain about the court's conclusions with respect to the first element. The government must abstain from interfering with any person's political contributions, monetary or polemical.
In the past the court has seen fit to abridge first amendment rights in cases where the government has a compelling interest. Campaign finance laws have usually rested on this basis, relying on the court's acknowledgement of the need for balancing a variety of interests. In throwing out McCain-Feingold, the Supreme Court can be seen as effectively reining in these deviations from the letter of the law. A strictly defined freedom of speech should certainly be defended.
Apparently Richmond City Council wants to pay for the privilege of having my neighborhood hurt. Please come to the City Council meeting at 6:00 pm tonight to stop the council from using Federal stimulus dollars to pay taxes on a private developer's riverfront condo complex. It's such a good investment, the developer doesn't even want to risk all of his own money!
More at springhillrva.org.
There are many reasons to oppose this scheme. Governments like city council have too often used taxpayer-financed carrots to entice developers into making precisely the bad decisions that led to an oversupply and crash in the real estate market. If the project fails, will these City Council members be around to reimburse the taxpayers for either the stimulus money or the project tax revenue we lost by financing this? No, they'll be several years out of office by then, in all likelihood. Let's not insult citizen intelligence with pledges of accountability, now.
Everybody and their mother has invoked the old Mussolini quote (regardless of its accuracy) about renaming fascism to "corporatism". It always surprises me how many different political conclusions this point is used to augment. For some, it means private business is bad because it takes advantage of a vulnerable democratic political process. For others, it means firms are enlisted into the agendas of big bad politicians, restraining the so-called "free market" competition that benefits us all.
When considering each competing interpretation, it's most interesting and instructive to note which institution plays the victim and which the oppressor. After all, the quote is often used by people who assume the legitimacy of both big business and big government. The quibble lies solely with the relative power of one party relative to the other.
To my mind, the victim/oppressor dichotomy is positively self-reinforcing. In this case, the ontological dynamics serve to restrict what might be a broader conversation about not just the powers that be, but the powers we might have alternatively. Even radicals reinforce these established concepts: capitalists must have an articulable definition of the corporation and of the government to be able to ensure the victory of one over the other. Same for radical communists. If they didn't have set definitions of each institution, how would they understand the conditions of success towards which they strive?